Bartees Strange quickly became one of my favorite new artists on the back of his excellent 2020 LP Live Forever, and the reaction of that crowd speaks to the power of those songs. Such a stellar debut makes one wonder whether we have a fluke on our hands or someone who will be an unmissable name in indie rock for years to come. I’m happy to report that his new album, Farm to Table, confirms that it’ll be the latter.
The obvious selling point of Strange’s work is the eclectic sound – his relentless blending of various hip-hop and indie rock idioms that is distinctly his. Like on Live Forever, some songs live closer to one sound than another (here, “Mulholland Dr.” is more indie rock, while “Cosigns” is more hip-hop). On Live Forever, these two sounds would often act as foils for one another, like on the electrifying “Boomer”. The strategy on Farm to Table is often subtler. “Black Gold”, a gem tucked into the back of the record, blends confessional nearly-spoken lyrics and a drum machine with a profoundly melodic falsetto chorus and fingerpicked acoustic guitar.
But impressive genre-bending feats do not necessarily make a record someone emotionally treasures or that they come back to in vulnerable moments. Farm to Table offers as much substance as it offers style. “Hennessy” hangs delicately at the intersection of jazz, hip-hop, and indie-folk, offering a stunning vocal performance from strange and a group of backing vocalists.
Throughout the song, Strange owns his vulnerabilities and shortcomings, eschewing the cathartic finale in favor of something much more broken. It’s music that expertly paints the feelings in the lyrics, and that’s the real achievement: a sound distinctly his tells a story that is distinctly his.
While Strange’s band can play spectacularly fast and his live show is electrifying, he is often at his best when he’s a minimalist. “Jealousy”, Live Forever’s opener, is a first-class ticket to his virtuosity, and he seems to find more comfort in that idiom on Farm to Table. The heart of the album, a run from “Tours to “We Were Only Close For Like Two Weeks” (one of my favorite song titles in a while), is a more subdued, heart-on-sleeve experience. While Strange uses his prowess as an arranger, the show’s star is his guitar and his voice. On “Tours”, he careens from falsetto to a growl, pulling you along somewhat bewildered, while the acoustic guitar provides a center to the universe without for a second making you think you’re listening to a folk song.
“Escape the Circus” is another standout. The tune mills in a more folk-rock space for the vast majority of its runtime while tossing off an excellent dig at crypto bros, but then erupts astonishingly in its final moments. It’s the kind of song that is an incredible surprise the first time you hear it and that you then joyfully throw your hands in the air for subsequent listens.
Top-to-bottom, Farm to Table is Bartees Strange doing the things he does best: everything. While it’s tempting to dive into this album waiting for the next “Boomer”, an artist as accomplished and subtle as Bartees Strange is best appreciated for what he offers, not for what we project onto him. Farm to Table is a record to dwell within, not one to merely be impressed by, making it a fitting and remarkable sophomore effort for an artist whose debut turned so many heads.